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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Talking to Christ about the Unsaved

I find myself continually impressed by the guys at YOUthwork University.  So often they dispense great wisdom that not only applies to loving students to Christ but adults too.  Here's an example from a recent post:
A woman we know never led anyone to Christ. Couldn't do it. Then she decided if she couldn't evangelize she could always pray. So she looked up verses related to salvation and prayed them for friends and coworkers. 
The next thing you know people were coming to Christ. Lots of them. 
Her story got our attention because many adults care about students but don't know how to talk to them about Christ. So why not reverse things and talk to Christ about students?
Read the rest of the post to see an an awesome list of simple prayer requests with supporting Scriptures to pray for your unsaved acquaintances.  God answers!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Four Apostles, Part 2

I'd like to continue where my last post left off by explaining the theological symbolism of Albrecht Dürer's The Four Apostles (1526), a.k.a. The Four Holy Men (since Mark is not an apostle, depending on one's definition of the term).


Historians debate whether it is accurate to call Dürer a Protestant (at least in part because when he painted this picture the term hadn't been coined yet).  But there is no doubt that he greatly admired Martin Luther, who, he wrote, "helped me overcome so many difficulties."  Along these lines, the details of Dürer's life-size portrayal of (from left to right) John, Peter, Mark, and Paul (not to mention George and Ringo—wait, that's a different foursome) assert a central plank of the Protestant Reformation: the unique authority and sufficiency of the Bible, the Word of God.

An extreme close-up of the book that John is reading reveals it to be a passage from his Gospel.  Similarly, the scroll in Mark's hand bears the opening words of his Gospel in Greek.  And Paul appears to bear a Bible in his left hand that corresponds to the blade that represents "the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God" in his right.

In the left rear, Peter, who carries the key to the kingdom of heaven, represents Rome and the papacy.  The pope claimed (and still claims) to bear the authority of Peter, who is alleged to have been the first bishop of Rome and to be the initial leader of the church based on a number of Scriptural evidences (Matt. 16:16-19; John 21:15-19; Acts 2:1-41; 10:1-11:18).  Not denying the biblical importance of the apostle Peter, Dürer includes him with the luminaries in the painting.  But notice that he is the only character in the painting not carrying Scripture.  Notice also his advanced age and bowed head as he recedes in the background while Luther's favorite New Testament authors, John and Paul, take their place in the front rank.  It is hard to view the positions of the apostles without remembering that the sale of indulgences that Luther protested, sparking the Reformation, went to pay for the construction of the new Basilica of St. Peter in Rome.

Dürer painted these two panels for the city council of Nuremberg to urge them to use the power of the state to ensure the preaching of sound, biblical doctrine in the churches.  At the bottom of the painting is the following inscription:
All worldly rulers in these dangerous times should give good heed that they receive not human misguidance for the Word of God, for God will have nothing added to His Word nor taken away from it.  Here therefore these four excellent men, Peter, John, Paul, and Mark and their warning.
Below this Dürer's calligrapher includes quotes from the four biblical writers from Luther's German translation of the New Testament.  All the quotes warn against the appearance of false prophets.

Though I'm not a fan of the state using its power to tell churches what to preach, I love this painting and have a reprint hanging in my office.  It's a reminder that the Word of God is powerful and that false teaching is more poisonous than a mere empty opinion.  It reminds me that the truth of Scripture must be the basis of everything I do as a pastor, as a man, as a Christian.  And it reminds me that no matter what one's personality is (see last post), that truth applies to, and must be propounded by, everybody.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Four Apostles, Part 1 (and a Note on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)

I'd like to tell you about my favorite work of art, Albrecht Dürer's The Four Apostles (1526).


There is probably a lot about this painting on two panels that is really impressive from a technical perspective that I can't describe, because I'm not a painter.  All I can say about that is that I love the statuesque realism, the depth, the balance, the color, and the drapery—I mean, seriously, how does anyone paint clothes like that?

But I'm writing to talk about what the painting represents (part one of two).

The apostles are, in order from left to right, John, Peter, Mark, and Paul.  At one level, they represent the four classical temperaments.

The theory of the four temperaments dates from ancient Greece and was still highly current in medieval Europe when Dürer painted his masterwork.  The four temperaments in turn come from the theory of the four "humors" or bodily fluids: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm.  Ancient doctors believed that an imbalance of these fluids was related to sickness, a belief that took a long time to die.  For example, do you remember hearing about folks as recently as the Founding Fathers ca. 1800 being bled out by leeches to lower their fevers?  That's because the doctors believed that the patients had too much blood.

Anyway, classical theorists linked the four humors with the four seasons and the four elements (earth, air, water, and fire), assigning one humor to each, but they also believed that a chronic imbalance of the four humors was what caused people to have different personalities.  So a sanguine (literally "bloody") was outgoing, courageous, and amorous.  His opposite, a melancholic (black bile), was prone to despondency and introspection.  A choleric ([yellow] bile) was aggressive and easily angered, and his opposite, the phlegmatic (phlegm) was calm and apathetic.  If your humors were properly balanced but with some tilt towards the blood, then you would be happy and easy to get along with—in short, you would be "in good humor."  Even though medically the four humors concept has been thoroughly discredited, its influence on personality theory continues to this day in a number of modern four-part models.

Now if we look at The Four Apostles, we see that John (left front) is wearing a bold red robe; this "disciple whom Jesus loved" is the sanguine.  Across from him (right rear), Mark wears a black robe and stares into the distance as if he is meditating on a truth no one else can see.  He is the melancholic.  Then in the left rear, Peter, portrayed as the oldest, bows his head and retreats as the phlegmatic.  His opposite, Paul (right front), identified by the sword he bears as in traditional iconography, gives the viewer a frighteningly realistic "don't mess with me" look.  He is the choleric.

(I should note that art critics pretty much uniformly call Mark the choleric and Paul the melancholic.  I think they don't understand the theory of the four temperaments.  Black [Mark's color] always identifies the melancholic, which to fit the model must be positioned opposite of the sanguine [John].  And if that isn't a choleric look that Paul is giving us, I don't know what is.)

Next time I'll talk about the theological symbolism of the painting.  But first, a bonus note on the four temperaments for fans of C. S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia.  I am convinced that the four Pevensie children represent the four temperaments—Peter the choleric (weighted toward the good quality of fearless leadership in difficulty), Susan the phlegmatic, Edmund the melancholy, and Lucy the sanguine. You see hints of it in their royal epithets at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—Peter the Magnificent, Susan the Gentle, Edmund the Just (thoughtful introspection), Lucy the Valiant.  You would expect this from a renowned scholar of medieval literature, as Lewis was.

Now if this is true, then it explains why I (and maybe you too) felt like the characterization of the children in the recent Disney version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was way off.  Temperamentally, Peter and Susan basically switched places, and Lucy wasn't nearly bubbly enough.  But it also means (in the book) that Edmund, the melancholic, is the stand-in for Lewis himself, who shared that temperament.  Lewis is telling us that the story of Edmund, the resentful, wicked traitor ransomed by the death of Aslan, is his own story—and yours and mine.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


If you're like I was until recently, you probably couldn't locate Mindanao (pronounced min-duh-NOW) on a map.  It's the predominant island of the southern Philippines, where far from the headlines in the West, Christians are being killed and brutalized by Muslims.

This is a new twist on a conflict that goes back centuries.  Arab traders and missionaries brought Islam to the animistic peoples of Mindanao as early as the 14th century, a fact which greatly dismayed the Spanish when they colonized the Philippines in the 16th century.  They named the inhabitants "Moros" after the Moors that they had only recently ejected from Spain after their own centuries-long struggle.  Ever since Spanish colonization, the Moros of Mindanao have fought continually and violently to establish their independence from all foreign, imperialist occupiers—Spain (1565-1898), the United States (1898-1941), and Japan (1941-1945).  Since then, they have campaigned against the government of the Republic of the Philippines.

In recent years the Muslim independence movement, particularly a violent faction called the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), has adopted the ideology of jihadist Islam from elsewhere in the world.  That political theology identifies not only the government of the Philippines as the enemy, but Christians in general, including civilians, women, children, and the elderly.  That makes parts of Mindanao extremely dangerous since Christians compose 63% of the population, and all of them are potential targets of MILF.

But the believers that are most under threat are those living in or near the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), the only part of the Philippines with a semi-independent government subordinate to the national government.  The region was created as part of a lengthy initiative by the Filipino government to come to terms with Muslim separatists.  Most recently those separatists have demanded additional territory to accrue to the ARMM.  The government agreed, but the to-be-annexed provinces protested, and the Supreme Court of the Philippines suspended the agreement.  Meanwhile, forces of the government and MILF repeatedly violate cease-fires, leaving many dead and displaced.  And at times, whole villages of Christians in the war zone in the borderlands between government- and MILF-controlled areas endure ambush and slaughter at the hands of MILF guerillas.

There are Moros who peacefully advocate expansion of ARMM as part of a final, legal, peaceful settlement to resolve what they believe to be their legitimate grievances against a corrupt and unfair government.  But then there are violent jihadists in MILF who, like their counterparts around the world, cannot be appeased or satisfied.  No concession is ever enough.  They have no capacity to govern a territory in a constructive, sustainable way among the family of nations.  All they know how to do is take over areas and destroy all the freedom and justice within them while looking for the next place to conquer.  Their ultimate objective is to make everyone like themselves.

And so the radical resistance of the suffering Christians in Mindanao is to be themselves—to continue to confess and worship Jesus Christ no matter what.  Nothing is more essential or strikes more at the heart of jihadists than that stubborn unwillingness to yield their faith and identity in Christ.  And while they stand firm in who they are, they remain connected to those who hate them.  There are churches who bless MILF detachments with prayer and pastors who humbly and gently share the gospel with guerillas.  And there are many who have died and even more who have lost all they have.

Consider taking some time to pray for our brothers and sisters in Mindanao.  Watch testimonies of these brave believers standing for Christ in this violent land.  Consider donating to a group like Voice of the Martyrs that provides encouragement, replacement belongings, and refugee camps for Christians displaced by the fighting.  And pray also for lasting peace for both Christians and Muslims in that war-torn place.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Amazing Grace (the Movie)

Last night I watched the movie Amazing Grace.  (It's been out for two years, but it takes me a while to get around to these things.  In fact, for me two years is unusually prompt.)  It is the story of English politician and Evangelical William Wilberforce, who fought a long and ultimately successful battle to abolish the slave trade (and ultimately slavery itself) in the British Empire and to improve the moral character of British society in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Do you have movies that you once wanted to see and think you still ought to see, but you're reluctant to see them because for reasons you can't explain you're afraid you'll be disappointed when you do?  That's what Amazing Grace was for me.  Fortunately, I was far from disappointed.  It exceeded my expectations.

It is sharp as your basic British period piece with sumptuous costumes and clever historical details (like the active kitchen in a Georgian English manor house).  It also displays some very sensitive and compelling cinematography in the numerous night shots and in Wilberforce's dream sequences, not to mention the outdoor autumn scenes and vigorous debates in the House of Commons.

But what I enjoyed most was the surprising attention to the complicated political dynamics surrounding abolition.  In fact, that's really what this is: not as much a feel-good inspirational flick (though Wilberforce is undoubtedly inspiring) as a story of political intrigue.  The fascination is not just the character of William Wilberforce and his allies or even the moral gravity of their crusade, but the careful maneuvering they employ to achieve their goal through all the twists and turns they must navigate, including betrayal, mercurial public opinion, and war with France.

Here are some random thoughts and questions that are still floating around in my head a day later.

1. Wilberforce is portrayed politically as a firm liberal who recoils from going all the way to a revolution.  And that's true to a point.  But the actual man was as conservative as he was liberal.  He not only championed the abolition of the slave trade, the prevention of cruelty to animals, and the cessation of hostilities against the rebellious Americans.  In real life he also staunchly supported the social class structure (notwithstanding his great philanthropy) and sought to make vices in libertine 18th-century society like adultery and Sabbath-breaking illegal—an effort that was generally unsuccessful, though his personal example probably did make an impact at the cusp of the Victorian era.  He was an independent, not beholden to any political party, and he really didn't cleanly fit any mold.  His example confirms my personal suspicion (no Scripture to back this up) that no political party applies Christian truth 100 per cent, and if we agree fully and comfortably with any party, we are probably seriously deluded.  No one person does either—not even Wilberforce.  Too often, I think we measure a political proposal or moral issue by guilt- or innocence-by-association: "I trust (or don't trust) this party on x, so naturally I agree (or don't agree) with them on y."  I think that's a big mistake.  I don't know about you, but I fear my grandkids or great-grandkids looking back at me when I'm dead and saying, "As a Christian, how could he have been for (or against) that?" because I just went along with the partisan crowd.

2. Wilberforce had an on-again/off-again (but mostly on) friendship with William Pitt the Younger, Prime Minister of Britain.  I find it interesting how the generically, nominally religious Pitt did not hesitate to exploit his friend's spiritual convictions with respect to slavery to convince Wilberforce to support Pitt's political ambitions.  And yet they remained friends and (most of the time) allies.  Wilberforce could build a coalition of diverse confederates (even mutually hostile ones, like Pitt and Charles Fox) with a variety of motivations who nevertheless shared the same goal.  He could do so without apologizing for his own motivations, and yet his generosity of spirit didn't alienate others.  Would that all of us Christians emulated this in all areas, including the political sphere.

3. I wonder if slave-trader-turned-clergyman/hymnwriter John Newton was as eccentric and reclusive in real life as he was in the movie (mopping the floor of the church in bare feet and what looks like Bill Belichick's cut-off sweatshirt).  I doubt it—doesn't seem particularly Anglican to me.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

New John-the-Baptists

El Greco, St. John the Baptist, ca. 1600

In my personal prayer/meditation time I just started reading the Gospel of Luke, which means I'm beginning to be immersed in the Christmas story with all of its glorious build-up.  Perfect timing!

More than any other, Luke's Gospel highlights the importance of the power of the Holy Spirit for doing the work of God, which is fitting coming from the author of Acts.  It starts right at the beginning of the book with Gabriel's announcement to Zechariah about the birth of his son, John the Baptizer:
[H]e will be great in the sight of the Lord . . . and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth.  He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.  And he will go as a forerunner before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children [Mal. 4:6] and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared for him (Luke 1:15-17).
As I read these words, I began to yearn along with first-century Israel for someone just like this.  On the one hand, we who live after Pentecost are so richly blessed, because the Comforter/Helper/Advocate (Grk. paraklētos) has come—the Father has poured him out upon us in the name of the Son.  But as we anticipate the Lord's second coming, don't you long for God to raise up people who are filled with the Holy Spirit who will turn many dazed and distracted people in the Church back to the Lord their God, who will bring healing to families and convict and teach the disobedient, so that when our Lord returns we are a spotless bride prepared for that great wedding?  I do.

In all of our asking and hoping and wishing for gifts this Christmas, let's ask for the greatest gift of all, the Holy Spirit, to be poured onto the Church with fresh power!  Let us pray that God blesses his people with a new generation of Spirit-filled John-the-Baptists to prepare us for coming of the Lord.

El Greco, Pentecost, ca. 1600

Monday, December 7, 2009

Evangelicals and Catholics (Kind of) Together

Evangelical Protestants and traditional Catholics face a dilemma when they face each other.

On the one hand, each knows that the other is wrong on super-important, deal-breaking things.  For example, let's take the issue of justification (how sinful humans get right with God).  In 1547, the Catholic Council of Trent, a reaction to the Protestant Reformation that shaped Catholic dogma for centuries afterward, issued a decree on justification that contains 33 anathemas.  (Anathema is a Greek word meaning "accursed"; it is a technical term in the church world that means, "If you believe or do such-and-such a thing, you are separated from grace, under God's wrath, and headed for hell."  It is extremely serious.)  Somewhere between one and three quarters of these anathemas applies to any given Protestant, depending on his or her particular theological positions.

That's a lot of anathemas.

But even though Protestants don't generally have councils with the sweep of Trent, we do assert one anathema against the Catholics that is huge—in fact, it is the Biblical Mother of All Anathemas: "But even if we (or an angel from heaven) preach a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be anathema!  As we have said before, and now I say again, if anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let him be anathema!" (Gal. 1:8-9).  Contending that Paul argues in Galatians that the true gospel is of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (see also Rom. 3:21-31), Protestants allege that Catholic doctrine on justification as set forth in Trent is "a different gospel."  So anathema back at ya.

So each side can be pretty confident from the revelation of God (as each understands it) that the other is alienated from God and going to hell, right?  Well, not quite.  Because there are also these verses in Scripture that talk about how to tell a true believer from a false one, and they complicate things.  For example, from 1 John:
"Now who is the person who has conquered the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? . . . The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself . . . : God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.  The one who has the Son has this eternal life; the one who does not have the Son of God does not have this eternal life" (5:5, 10-12).
"Now by this we know that God resides in us: by the Spirit he has given us" (3:24).
"Now by this we know that we have come to know God: if we keep his commandments.  The one who says, 'I have come to know God' and yet does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in such a person.  But whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has been perfected.  By this we know that we are in him" (2:3-5).
"We know that we have crossed over from death to life because we love our fellow Christians" (3:14).
So if a person displays evidence that he or she believes that Jesus is the Son of God, has the Holy Spirit, keeps God's commandments, and loves other Christians, that is strong, biblical evidence that the person is saved.

Jesus told us that we would be able to tell the difference between true and false teachers by the "fruit" they bear.  So what happens when an Evangelical knows a Catholic who bears the fruit of salvation that John delineates, or vice versa?  We find ourselves in a very uncomfortable position: what we take to be divinely revealed truth tells us to regard the other both as an infidel and as a brother.  We're stuck.

This is a very difficult dilemma to sit in the middle of, so for the most part we don't.  On both sides there are people who tilt toward the anathemas: "We know they are unsaved, because they believe damnable false doctrine."  They don't want anything to do with the other, and if you suggest to them, "Maybe some of those people are saved after all," then they gear up to anathematize you too.  Then there are those who are eager to join hands and sing "Kum-Ba-Ya" with those across the divide.  (Did you know that people still do that on occasion?  To my own shock I participated in that earlier this year.)  Their approach is either, "Those folks don't really believe all that anymore" (yes, they do), or, "Doctrine, schmoctrine; isn't the most important thing that we love everybody?" (no, it isn't).

But either of these stances that minimizes the other is unbiblical.  For me as an Evangelical Protestant, I have abandoned the faith if I don't insist that the gospel revealed once for all in the New Testament, which I believe to be badly perverted by Trent, is the only true gospel there is and the only "power of God for salvation" (Rom. 1:16).  But I have also disobeyed my Lord if I don't regard a given Catholic who displays the biblical evidence of salvation as my brother or sister in Christ.

I really don't know exactly what to do with this.  I just know what not to do: either shun fellow children of God or say that a foreign gospel is no problem.

Obviously, this is about doctrine.  But at another, complementary level it is an example of what I wrote about last time: how do I maintain self in connection with others?  Or on the other side, how do I not compromise who I am (in this case, what I am convinced is exclusively true) but also not avoid engagement with the other, who differs profoundly from me and yet is like me?

God has blessed me with a friendship with a Catholic priest who joins me in wrangling over these things.  I once asked him how we might achieve visible unity, in particular how from the Catholic side the anathemas of the Council of Trent could be squared with the measured acceptance of Protestants (if not of their doctrine) in the Second Vatican Council.  His reply: "With God, all things are possible" (Matt. 19:26).  At this point, I can't think of a better answer.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Distinct yet Together

The essence of the doctrine of the Trinity is that neither God's Threeness nor his Oneness takes precedence over the other.  That means that each of the Persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is truly distinct in self and function and that they are related to one another in unique ways, for otherwise God's Threeness would be compromised.  It also means that they are one in nature, will, and work and that they fully indwell each other, for otherwise his Oneness would be compromised.  Therefore the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are each perfect at being radically distinct and radically together-with-others at the same time.

And you and I aren't.  I think we began that way, because Genesis neatly summarizes both the radical union of Adam and Eve and the radical distinction between them as male and female and as persons, which one theorizes would have multiplied with the human race.  This is what we would expect from beings created in the image of God.  As Genesis 1:27 implies, the first couple reflected God in the combination of their oneness as humankind and their distinction as two opposite-sex persons.

But the image of God in us was perverted and distorted because of sin, and I strongly believe that the distortion includes our capacity to be one-yet-many (from the corporate perspective) and distinct-yet-together-with (from the individual perspective).  We still attempt it, but we're naturally horrible at it.  Every sin we commit against our neighbor in thought, word, or deed is somehow connected to this.

But for those of us who are in Christ, who is the image of God, our transformation consists of being made like him and thus being made like who we used to be (i.e., as Adam and Eve were).

Is this not at the heart of the struggle for Christians in the Church to be what God made her to be?  How many Christian dysfunctions involve Christians attempting to force conformity on fellow Christians that God does not intend, thus violating their distinctness as persons?  Or when a Christian, in an effort to keep him- or herself distinct (because of dissatisfaction with others' imperfection, laziness, or fear of being personally invaded and overwhelmed) avoids being connected to other Christians, thus violating the togetherness God created us to possess?  Or when Christians pretend agreement with each other by means of superficial fuzzies (doctrinal or emotional) that both obscure the persons' genuine distinctness and dilute what real togetherness is about?

If we grow in reflecting the image of God in this area—that is, if each of us Christians can learn to be oneself connected with others, and if all of us can learn to be unified as true individuals—then I think a whole lot of stuff will begin to fall into place.

That's all for today; I'll write about a concrete example of this challenge soon.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

One Message

The big Christian holidays—Christmas with the Advent run-up and Easter with the Holy Week run-up—can be the most satisfying times for me as a Christian but among the most difficult for me as a preacher.  What am I supposed to say?, I wonder.  Everyone—or nearly everyone here—knows this stuff already.  I vary my approach from year to year, but there is no way to avoid banging home the basics: God became man for our salvation (Advent/Christmas) and died and rose again for our salvation (Holy Week/Easter).  Those messages are on the one hand enormously practical (as will become terrifying clear on the Day of Judgment) but are on the other hand very difficult to tie to a right-here, right-now practical application with integrity other than "get saved" in some form or another.  (To anyone for whom this isn't difficult, please educate me.)

What makes things more challenging is that I try to mention the gospel somehow in every message that I preach, even if only in passing.  I think that this keeps us majoring on the majors, and it means that no unsaved person will walk into our church on a Sunday morning without a chance to be saved.  But it also means that the saints who listen to me every week hear it all the time.  Some people have told me they love that.  Others have told me to stop telling them what they already know.  A few have told me both.  So I realize that given what I hope is the pervasiveness of the gospel in my ordinary preaching, when I preach whole messages that concentrate on it almost exclusively (like during the entire month of December), it can seem like overkill.

And yet I don't really plan on changing my tack, because from time to time I find myself renewed by a great message like this one by Francis Frangipane.  Please read it and enjoy!